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“Masking” Makeup: Cosmetics and Constructions of Race in Rio de Janeiro

By Samuel Elliott Novacich

Cite As:
Novacich, Samuel Elliott. 2021. “‘Masking’ Makeup: Cosmetics and Constructions of Race in Rio de Janeiro.” Cultural Anthropology 36, no. 4: 681–707.


This article examines applications of bright, eye-catching makeup on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tracking the aesthetic decisions of makeup artists and their clients, I analyze how colorful manipulations of the bodily surface relate to local constructions of race. But the bodily surface does not simply reflect established and conventional understandings of race, nor are the aesthetics described herein merely symbolic of assumptions of difference. Instead, the aesthetic practices portrayed in this article may also be regarded as experimental, “nondiscursive” moments—operating on a complementary semiotic register—in the production of yet-to-be actualized ideas about race and being. This research shows how makeup practices often disrupt the aesthetic and conceptual links that tie insides to outsides, essences and souls to physical appearance, and in so doing chip away at the foundations on which race in Brazil has historically been built. Through sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork (2019–2020) in Rio’s northern suburbs, I observed as disparate aesthetic practices—namely, beautification and transformation—merged with eclectic understandings of the body and notions of being. Through these alternating lenses, makeup enthusiasts often interpreted material signs of the body as pointing to categorical constructions of race, on the one hand, and to beauty, sex, and desire, on the other.These semiotic oscillations and their interpretations often stood in conflict with established racial discourses, and yet rather than being exceptional, I argue that such exploratory, sensuous aesthetics are in fact mundane. Taking as a starting point the understanding that racial discourse in Brazil, as elsewhere, is internally ambiguous and rife with epistemic conflict, this article describes nondiscursive aesthetic practices as strands of material disorder—latent with possibility but often incongruous with what we think we know about race—working to forge novel understandings of race, beauty, and the body.


makeup; aesthetics; race; semiotics; the face; the body